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Looking at the NBA's Eastern Conference 2008-09
By Clayton Ruley

Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics return looking poised to make a repeat appearance to the NBA Finals. All of the main players from the 2007-2008 NBA Championship team return save forward James Posey who left for a big deal in New Orleans.

The big three of forward Kevin Garnett, guard/forward Paul Pierce and guard Ray Allen seem to be comfortable in their roles and have help in guards Rajon Rondo, Eddie House, forward Leon Powe and center Kendrick Perkins. Powe, especially, seems like a starter waiting to happen because he plays well on both sides of the ball and can finish in the paint better than someone would expect for a 6-8 player.

Head coach Doc Rivers seems to have his templete set and now only has to hope for no big injuries to sidetrack his team's success.

I expect a high 60 win season and the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Philadelphia 76ers are learning to adjust to new players similar to the way Boston did last season. 7 new players on the roster including forwards Elton Brand, Donyell Marshall and guard Kareem Rush highlight the new focus on winning now General Manager Ed Stefanski has brought to the team since arriving mid-season last year.

Guards Andre Iguodala and Louis Williams return with new contracts and more expectations. Thaddues Young looked sharp in the summer camps and early in the season with a sparkling jumper being his latest addition. The question with the Sixers will be how do they get Iguodala and Young to co-exist in the line-up at the same time. Head coach

Maurice Cheeks has a lot of talent on his team making it important to get a steady rotation by mid to late season. guard Willie Green has come off the bench and shot well from the mid-range and three point territories and looks to be a spark off the bench along with Williams. Center Samuel Dalembert needs to work on his footwork and moves in the post because Brand isn't all post up in the paint play but a versatile player who likes to chose his spots depending on the competition and their height, speed and other factors.

Dalembert needs to make better decisions on defense to help this team reach it's potential. The team needs point guard Andre Miller to continue to push the tempo and find people for easy buckets.

I see this team winning 52 games and getting the 4th or 5th seed in the conference.

Toronto Raptors

The Toronto Raptors made a significiant move in the off-season acquiring forward Jermaine O'Neal from Indiana for guard T.J. Ford (basically). This moves gives them addition size in the frontcourt but leaves them without the bench point they had last year. Forward Chris Bosh spent his summer winning a Olympic gold medal and is the team's best player but needs help from players like guard Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon and former 1st overall pick Andrea Bargnani who is going into his third year.

Forward Jason Kapono is one of the league's best three point shooters and can spread the floor. If the team can stay healthy and plays defense I can see them fighting with Philly for second in the Atlantic Division. The team's struggled to start the season and head coach Sam Mitchell needs to find his core again or it could mean change.

I see them finishing third in the division with about 46 wins.

New Jersey Nets

The New Jersey Nets are putting the load of leader on guard Vince Carter's shoulders so it will be interesting to see how he responds. Carter is the only one left from the big three of Carter, Guard Jason Kidd and forward Richard Jefferson. Both Kidd and Jefferson were traded for younger players with talent between mid-season 07-08 and the off-season.

Kidd brought in guard Devin Harris from Dallas and he's the team's point guard of the now and later. His size should make for great matchups and we saw glimpses of his potential on the Mavericks' run to the NBA Finals a few years back. Richard Jefferson brought the team forward Yi Jianlian from Milwaukee, a second year player with tons of potential.

In the draft the team got a player I like in Brook Lopez who should help in the middle after the loss of Nenad Krstic to overseas. Bobby Simmons also came in the trade and can help at the three spot. Jarvis Hayes and Trenton Hassell should help guard the perimeter and more physical guards and forwards. The well-traveled Keyon Dooling should help in up-tempo games and Eduardo Nareja, Josh Boone, Sean Williams and Stromile Swift round out a solid bench that can spot-start depending on the team.

Head coach Laurence Frank's job may depend on a playoff run despite the big changes made. He has to motivate Vince Carter to realize his leadership potential and no, all-star game selections don't count.

This team will fight for a 5-7 seed in the playoffs.

New York Knicks

In New York City, everything goes fast so if you are the Knicks why not hire someone with a uptempo style in new head coach Mike D'Antoni, formerly of the Phoenix Suns. D'Antoni likes a up and down type of game and has some players in particular that could help including new acquisition Al Harrington, Nate Robinson and Quentin Richardson. Richardson has been re-energized so far this season and will likely thrive in the same type of offense he played in while in Phoenix a few season ago.

The team still has Stephon Marbury but he's been inactive and will likely be released once a buyout is agreed to. Eddy Curry could be a bonus for this team and will no longer have to share space with Zach Randolph (traded to Los Angeles Clippers). The addition of Cuttino Mobley will help at the two guard posiition and TIm Thomas also played with D'Antoni in Phoenix and should spread the court for the slashing guards and forwards on the team.

I see this team fighting for 40 wins and a playoff spot.

Miami Heat
The Miami Heat return with a Olympic gold medalist in Dwayne Wade and the number two pick in former Kansas State forward Michael Beasley. Wade seems focused from the start and has many bringing up three words: Most Valuable Player. Wade's ability to handle the ball at times and his improving jumpshot have made him even more dangerous and keeps rookie guard Mario Chalmers and guard Chris Quinn only having to do what they can handle. Forward Udonis Haslem has been a strong player since he arrived in Miami and gives more that his stats would indicate. Beasley seems to be comfortable on the inside and outside which will help the team's frontcourt scoring.

Rookie head coach Erik Spolestra will practice with many of Pat Riley's techniques so the transition should be seamless. Shot blocking is a concern for this team but they hope center Alonzo Mourning can get on the court mid-season and help with that. The team is short but athletic and most of the players can cover multiple positions on the floor which will help on switches.

I see this team rebounding from last year's mess and winning 45-50 games in a highly competitive division to win the division. Oh did I forget to mention the wily play of forward Shawn Merion?

Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic have one certain in center Dwight Howard and not much else. forward Hedo Turkoglu won the award for best sixth man but has started the season with injuries. forward Rashard Lewis has always disappointed me on defense and rebounding and seems content to stand outside of the three-point line neglecting his 6-10 frame. The team lost forward Pat Garrity to retirement but added athletic forward/guard Mickeal Pietrus from Golden State so slashing into the lane is now an option.

Point guard Jameer Nelson is fighting for his job but Anthony Johnson is a proven veteran who will help in the clutch. Rookie guard Courtney Lee looks like he will contribute from the start and the team hopes guard J.J. Redick earns minutes and hits more three-pointers. forward/centers Brian Cook and Tony Battie will have a 18 point game every 10 games because people are focused on Howard so much. There is no Penny to Howard's Shaq on this Orlando team so I see them fight for the bottom half of the conference playoffs spots.

I see about 48 wins for this team.

Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks finished winning less than 50 percent of their games but took eventual World Champions Boston to game seven of the opening playoff round last season. The team resigned forward Josh Smith and forward Al Horford looks to be the real deal and will continue to improve in his second season. Guard Joe Johnson is a underrated assassin who can do it all and pointman Mike Bibby has stabilized the team since arriving from Sacramento mid-season last year.

Head coach Mike Woodson seems to always be on the hot seat so a decent start is needed for him to keep his job and for once talent in Atlanta isn't a problem. Crowds on the other hand, well.... Anyway, forward Marvin Williams is beginning to show the potential that made him a lottery pick a few years back and although the team lost forward Josh Childress to Europe they seem to be fine when it comes to versatile small forwards.

The team hopes guard Speedy Claxton will be a good backup to Bibby and provide some championship experience on the floor and forward/guard Maurice Evans seems to get on a playoff team wherever he goes, playing defense and doing a bit of everything.

Once again, this team will fight for those last three spots because they are young and still make young mistakes. I see about 46 wins.

Washington Wizards

The Washington Wizards have fired Eddie Jordan less than 20 games into the season and they haven't even have two of their starters in recent resignee Gilbert Arenas and center Brendan Heywood. The team is still playing with two all-star caliber players in Antwan Jamison and Caron Butler but need more play from their point guard position.

Antonio Daniels is a decent bench guy and spot-starter but nothing you want to play all season long. Juan Dixon can help with that problem and be a valuable free agent signee. DeShawn Stevenson is a decent backup but needs to step it up offensively before he gives LeBron posterboard material for the playoffs. Andrey Blanche has been decent in a limited role and the team needs Etan Thomas to return for his blocked shots and hustle.

Rookie JaVale McGee is former USC women's basketball great Pamela McGee's son and should give the team more size to contest the teams in the Southeast. Darius Songalia will bring some energy and beef to the frontcourt also. Nick Young is playing well in Arenas place and should continue with that but scoring isn't the teams' problem. The team can score but defense will be a priority for this team to make it's fourth straight playoff appearance.

I see them going 30-35 wins and no playoffs this year.

Charlotte Bobcats

The Charlotte Bobcats decided to get some experience on the sidelines and hired Larry Brown, a University of North Carolina guy, as head coach. The team has questions at every position and no one player is off the trading block if someone great came along. Raymond Felton had a nice season last year but will be pushed for a starting spot by rookie D.J. Augustin, formerly of the University of Texas. Felton has to show that he's the point guard Larry Brown covets in his offenses or a move in position or team might happen. Look for Brown to also try playing both mentioned players in the same backcourt at times.

At the swingman position, Jason Richardson is the team's leading scorer but started the season hobbled with injuries. Once he gets back he should start next to small forward Gerald Wallace who can do a bit of everything and is not great at anything. Emeka Okafor got a new contract in the off-season but it's still not clear if he's better suited to be a center or a power forward. Okafor is a rock for the team who averages a double-double every night.

Adam Morrison will be given every opportunity to crack the rotation and show he can score in the league and fulfill some of his promise. Morrison was out of commission last season (in majority) and needs to show he can knock down those three pointers and mid-range shots he did at Gonzaga a few years back. If so, look for Morrison to rise like Mike Dunleavy did for the Pacers last season.

This team will struggle to reach 35 wins but that's an improvement and stepping stone with Larry Brown. Can Michael Jordan suit up one more time?

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cleveland Cavaliers went out and got Mo Williams from Milwaukee and he will add scoring to the team who lacked a second fiddle for most of LeBron James' tenure. James is the best player in the game and has a gold medal from Beijing to boot but many are already talking about his free agency status in 2010. The talk could be a distraction to the team and head coach Mike Brown has to do his best to keep the team focused.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas is steady at center but is getting older. Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao are energy guys whether starting or coming off the bench but the team needs more scoring. Daniel Gibson will help off the bench but needs to handle the ball better to get more time. Delonte West re-signed with the team and can be another player to provide some scoring off the bench. Wally Szczerbiak can move LeBron to the two-guard from time to time and hit some threes and the team hopes it struck gold with J.J. Hickson a power forward from N.C.State. LeBron can do so much but this team needs to stop the winning droughts it has from time to time and be more consistent.

I see them doing so in the Central Division, finishing second and winning around 50 games.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks have a lot of talent for new head coach Scott Skiles to work with but there always seem to be a missing piece. They had a point in T.J. Ford but few players with any post game so they traded to get Charlie Villanueva from Toronto but in turn trade T.J. Ford. The team had Mo Williams but traded him to Cleveland (a division foe, nonetheless). The team did do something well and traded Yi Jianlian to New Jersey while receiving Richard Jefferson to help them at the small forward position.

Andrew Bogut needs to step it up at center and so does Villanueva at the four spot. Olympian Michael Redd has one of the games best jumpers (and is lefty too) but needs addition support to keep teams from doubling up on him. Skiles will promote defense from his players and smart basketball. Luke Ridnour came from Seattle and will hope to solidify his and the team's point guard concerns. If not,

Tyronn Lue is a very good backup to have and brings championship experience. Dan Gadzuric has been a player who can get a double double but remains inconsistent. Austin Croshere is another player bringing playoff experience and hustle and rookie forward Joe Alexander looks to make a rise in the minds of his team and basketball fans with his shooting ability. Damon Jones can hit the three and should help and Ramon Sessions has gotten alot of press for his early season play.

I see this team competing for second place in the Central division and winning 42-47 games.

Indiana Pacers

The Indiana Pacers are depending on the play of new acquisition T.J. Ford and young player Danny Granger for most of their team's success. Mike Dunleavy will certainly be counted on when he gets healthy and Troy Murphy can bang and get a low double-double. Head coach Jim O'Brien likes to run and hit the three while paying attention to defense.The team is solid at all positions but doesn't have a star at one of them. Jarrett Jack will solidify the back up point position and can play off-guard at times also. Marquis Daniels has been good scoring the ball to start the season and can handle the ball at times.

The team hopes Brandon Rush will be the scorer they've lacked since Reggie Miller left down the road. For now, Rush just needs to show his game and learn. Jeff Foster, rookie Roy Hibbert and Rasho Nesterovic will help in the middle and give a decent presence but Hibbert needs to show he's not the mid-round selction he became in this year's draft but the player many were ready to take in the lottery for the team to make a run at the playoffs.This team may need to take a step back to move forward. By the end of the season the team should know who it's future stars are.

I see them struggling to win 30 games and no playoffs.

Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls thought they had a winning formula but found themselves with the number one overall pick after a bad season last year. The team drafted the college game's best point guard in Derrick Rose, who led the Memphis Tigers to the national title game. Rose looks to have to total package of speed, strength, skill and winning attitude and will solve some of the Bulls' problems of the past few years. Problems that have included Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich having to play the point guard spot a lot instead of their shooting guard position. Gordon will thrive with a true point guy and make Chicago reconsider giving him a high priced contract extension.

The team has athleticism in the frontcourt but no true post players. Drew Gooden is good for 14-10 with Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas on the incline but giving no consistent numbers better than Gooden's.

The team will have to hope that players like Cedric Simmons and journeyman Michael Ruffin can help out there. Lindsey Hunter is a two-time champion who plays great perimeter defense (despite the size) and will help in the locker room. Larry Hughes has rarely played with a point guard so it will be interesting to see if can put up some nice numbers with this team or will he be traded again. Luol Deng can score on anyone but isn't a force on defense and needs to get the ball even more while shooting a better percentage. The team hired former player and Phoenix assistant GM Vinny Del Negro for his first head coaching job and he has a veteran coaching staff including Del Harris and Bernie Bickerstaff.

This team could go up or down but most likely they will finish around 35-40 wins and fight for a eight seed playoff spot.

Detroit Pistons

The Detroit Pistons traded Chauncey Billups to Denver early this season and brought in Allen Iverson to shake up the core that went to six straight Eastern Conference finals. Iverson is a hall of famer but will need to work with the team for them to be successful. So far the team has one one and lost one during Iverson's stint so we will see if players like Richard Hamilton will continue to suffer in the transition. The team returns the same core from previous years but the clutchness of Billups may be missed.

Second year guard Rodney Stuckey played like a star in the playoffs and probably made Joe Dumars more likely to trade one of his stars to shake things up. Tayshawn Prince won an Olympic gold medal this summer and is a Scottie Pippen like player who can do it all. Rasheed Wallace is still a multi-purpose threat and doesn't have to play center because the team added Kwame Brown to play along with Jason Maxiell at the center position.

The team will certainly make the playoffs and win a round but Iverson's willingness to get others the ball will tell whether they can topple the Celtics and make a run at the crown. I see a 50-55 win season and the Central Division title.

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